Skip to main content

Reply to this post | See parent post | Go Back
View Post [edit]

Poster: light into ashes Date: Apr 22, 2011 7:49am
Forum: GratefulDead Subject: Pigpen Solo - Pt II


At any rate, the solo club show on 9/9/71 could have been the start of an interesting new direction for Pigpen. But if he had been thinking of doing any more solo gigs in September ‘71, his plans would soon have been cut short.
McNally writes: “On September 17, Pigpen went into Novato General Hospital with a perforated ulcer and hepatitis. Ironically, his drinking had already slackened considerably, after he had reached the point of sweats, faintness, and incipient DTs. He had lost an enormous amount of weight.”

Pigpen had been a heavy drinker for at least ten years, and his health had slowly been failing for some time before the collapse. The band did their best to overlook this slight issue.
Rock Scully: “He was already an alcoholic when I met him. I mean, he drank all the time. But you never had a feeling he was abusing it because he could hold so much… He had a way of being able to drink a lot and not show it.”
Garcia also observed, “He was never too drunk to perform… He drank all the time – first thing in the morning, all day long. But you never saw him out of it…he’d just get more mellow… He was no stumbling drunk.”
Tom Constanten remembered that nobody ever tried to intervene with Pigpen’s drinking. “The doctor was the first to tell him. That was a time when everybody was doing so many things that the laissez faire attitude was, hey, who are we to tell him?” Bob Matthews also commented, “There was an attitude of, who are we to cast stones?”
Alan Trist: “I heard talk that there was a real serious problem with Pigpen, but there definitely was an attitude that every man could look after his own health, and to try to be positive about things. To introduce negative thoughts or worrisome thoughts or anxieties was not a good thing… When you’re young, you don’t expect your friends to be deteriorating, so you don’t put a lot of energy into either worrying about it or taking care of them.”
Rock Scully: “I don’t think any of us were that aware of what was going on at the time. We were all kind of spun out a little bit… We didn’t pay attention to it, mainly because we were all sort of fucked up ourselves... I wasn’t paying that much attention, and I was closer to him than some of the bandmembers.”

But changes were evident. Scully said, “He started turning very pale. His cheeks started getting sunken in… Pig started getting listless and losing weight and looking sallow. And you could just feel that there was no enthusiasm. One thing Pig always was was enthusiastic; he was very up about things. And he started to turn kind of sour.”
According to Jon McIntire, at some point, “I remember one day Garcia coming into my office and saying, ‘Look, I’m really worried about Pig; I think his life is in danger, and I want to do whatever we can. The band’ll pay for everything. Let’s see if there’s anything we can do.’” McIntire searched around and found a good liver doctor at UCSF, “so we slotted Pig with him… He stopped drinking and he learned all the things about nutrition he could. He really tried, but it was just too late.”

McIntire said, “When we did Chateau d’Herouville in France [6/21/71], Pig made it for that and it was just really great that we could go to Europe with Pig. He wasn’t in very good shape then… After a while, his doctors decided that he couldn’t go on the road… I remember his doctor telling me at one point that there wasn’t much hope. But I don’t think I believed him.”
Garcia also said, “When he went in the hospital in ’71 and we all gave him blood, they were saying, ‘That’s it, he’s not going to make it’… We thought he was going to die.”

But Pigpen pulled through. Garcia said later that year: “He’s pretty sick. But he’s living. He was really, really, extremely sick – I don’t know how sick, because I never hung out at the hospital that much, although I did give him a pint of blood. We all did. He was really fucked up; his liver was full of holes and he had some kind of pulferated ulcer…”

Diagnosed with advanced liver disease, Pigpen was too ill for now to go on tour. Much of the next year and a half would be spent resting at home and getting weaker, his party days behind him. He tried switching to a healthier diet, and stopped drinking for the rest of his life.

Meanwhile, the Dead had an upcoming fall tour to consider. By fate, though, a new player dropped into their laps that very month. While Pigpen was in the hospital, Keith Godchaux joined the Dead – his first rehearsal with them may have been that same week.
The Godchauxs went to see Garcia at one of his Keystone shows with Saunders. Garcia played the Keystone on August 31 and September 16; so it would have been one of those dates that they met. “The next week, we were at Grateful Dead rehearsal,” Donna said. “Keith and I didn’t know that Pigpen was sick or anything.”
Donna elaborated: “The coming Sunday the Dead were having a rehearsal and Jerry told us to come on down, so we did. But the band had forgotten to tell Jerry that the rehearsal had been called off, so Jerry was down there by himself. So Keith and Jerry played, and we played him some tapes of songs that I had written and was singing on. Then Jerry called Kreutzmann and got him to come down, and the three of them played some. Then the next day [Monday] the Dead practiced, and by the end of that day Keith was on the payroll.”
It’s certainly possible that Godchaux joined the Dead just a few days after Pigpen was hospitalized. The prospect of Garcia and Kreutzmann jamming away with someone on Sunday the 19th, while Pigpen lay dying, seems just a bit too callous to believe, though! So I’m inclined to think the meeting happened on one of the other Sundays that month, perhaps even the 26th. (Our first taped rehearsal comes from September 28.)

The Dead went on tour in October, leaving Pigpen at home. Garcia said, “For the time being he’s too sick, too weak to go on the road, and I wouldn’t want to expose him to that world. I don’t think it’s good for him at this point. It would be groovy if he could take as long as it takes to get him to feeling right, and then to work on his solo album, and get himself together.”

With hindsight, Lesh thought “it would have been better for Pig if we’d just canceled the tour and let him recover all his strength at his own pace… It was agreed that Pig would rejoin the band when he felt up to it. Without realizing it, we put a lot of pressure on him to hurry up and get better.”

Pigpen returned to the road in December ’71 – perhaps a little sooner than was wise for him. Lesh wrote, “We were all delighted to hear that Pigpen was flying out to rejoin the band onstage in Boston, but I was shocked when I saw him – he was shrunken and fragile-looking.”
The Taping Compendium review of 12/5/71 notes, “The lack of organ playing throughout the show is not due to a poor mix; Pig was just not playing. He was standing and/or sitting behind the organ looking kinda down until it was his turn to take a lead vocal.”

Pigpen does play organ on other shows that month, though. He had some catching-up to do, as the Dead introduced a lot of new music on this tour! Many of his best old songs were sadly dropped after his return – there were no more King Bees, Hard to Handles, Easy Winds, Midnight Hours, or Alligators. But he did do Good Lovin’ once that month, and Lovelight twice, and even revived the almost-forgotten Same Thing at the New Year’s show; Smokestack Lightning returned a few times, and he sang Chuck Berry’s Run Rudolph Run at most of the December shows for the holiday crowds.

A few months later, the Dead went out to Europe for a two-month tour, and Pigpen went with them. It’s somewhat remarkable that he went at all; but he contributed a lot to the music, adding not only his blues tunes but also some majestic versions of Good Lovin’ and Lovelight, and the surprise return of Caution. (It’s noticeable that he tends to be more active in the first sets than the second sets, perhaps running out of energy some nights.) This was also one of the Dead’s rare double-keyboard tours, with Pigpen on the B-3 and Godchaux on piano.
Garcia remembered, “We were so delighted when he was able to come to Europe with us, cause he’d been so sick. And then when we were there he played and sang real good. He had a great time. He wasn’t as strong as he had been certainly, but he was there.”
Scully said, “He couldn’t drink, but his temperament was real good, even though everyone around him was drinking. He was real positive; he loved Europe.”

Pigpen was still quite far from well though. It was hard for him to rest on the road, and the long bumpy bus rides in particular were grueling for him, as he was struggling with hepatitis.
Annette Flowers said, “He was sick…we stayed behind in Munich together for a few days [after 5/18] and caught up with the rest of the band in Zurich; the two of us flew alone… It was difficult for him to travel and he was in some pain… But his mood was always pretty good… He was a trouper; he didn’t complain.”

When they were back home overdubbing the ‘live’ album, I haven’t checked if Pigpen did vocal overdubs on his songs; but Merl Saunders was called on again to provide organ parts: “I played on four or five tracks of Europe ’72. Bob Weir was a great help to me; he wrote out the changes, and gave me the color they were looking for.”

Pigpen’s last show was on 6/17/72, where he played organ on the first Stella Blue, but didn’t sing anything.
An audience member on the Archive reports: “We wanted to see Pigpen do his numbers, but after a few songs it was obvious something was wrong. For most of the show he was slumped over, nodded out and not moving at all. A few times one of the band members would bump into him to wake him up, but not much action at all out of Ron.”

For the rest of the year, Weir would announce to disappointed audiences asking “Where’s Pigpen?” that Pigpen was staying home recovering from his “multiple and serious illnesses.” On August 21, it was Lesh who announced, “Pigpen is sick. He caught a little hepatitis when we went to Europe and that combined with his breakdown of the last year, got him kinda screwed up. So he’s got to stay home for six months and do nothing but cook vegetables. But we know that we can take your best wishes on home to Pigpen.”

Eileen Law remembered, “When they came back from Europe the rest of the band would go on tours. Keith went out and Pig stayed home. Pig would call the office – it was just a skeleton crew – and he was really having a hard time with the band being on the road and him being out of that. He would call and just want to talk.”
Pigpen would tell Laird Grant when he visited, “I’m workin’ on some tunes, and the doctor says I can go out on this next tour as long as I’m cool behind it. But it’s really cold out there, me bein’ sick and shit. It’s just not the same, man.”

Jon McIntire believed, “It must have been scary as hell for him… And he didn’t have the cushion of alcohol to hide in.”
Laird Grant was saddened. “God knows what kind of emotional shit he went through near the end, between trying to keep up with the band and keep up with that alcoholic jones that he had. When it got down to where he couldn’t drink, that really knocked him for a loop because then he was in a total void; he had no place to hide… It was like being shuffled off to the side track and watching the freights go by.”
Grant felt that the band didn’t treat Pigpen very well when he was sick. “They were down on him for boozing all those years, and they gave him a lot of shit and a lot of hassle, while here are people doing coke and calling the kettle black. When he got sick and couldn’t perform, I saw people kind of turning their back on him, like he wasn’t there.”

McNally reports, “Increasingly tired and weak, he spent most of his time in his apartment.” Lonely, he would invite Girl Freiberg over to play chess.
Scully said, “He looked just terrible.” Laird Grant mentions him looking “pretty wan, pretty gaunt;” Eileen Law was surprised to see him turn into “this little thin person;” Danny Rifkin said, “I saw him at his house. He had edema, swelling of the legs…he became very quiet.”
Tom Constanten also noticed, “He was obviously having a lot of problems. He was on this no-sodium diet. No alcohol; things were quite different. He had a medicine chest full of medications. But his attitude was pretty good. He kept reading and playing music, keeping his mind active.”

Nonetheless, they all said later that they’d expected him to recover. Whether through disbelief, inattention or optimism, or because Pigpen put up a good front for others, they thought he was getting himself back together. As Garcia said, “Actually I thought he was doing pretty good…he kind of just snuck away.”
Rock Scully: “Pigpen was supposed to come back. All the reports I heard were very positive that he was getting better. He didn’t do anything to fuck up; it’s just that his body gave up.”
Mountain Girl: “We all thought he was getting better. Pigpen wouldn’t tell anyone how sick he was.”
Tom Constanten: “I visited him at his house about a week before he died, and he wasn’t very well, but I was still surprised when I heard that he’d died.”
Sue Swanson: “Even though everyone knew he was really sick, it still seemed sudden. I think everyone wanted to believe that he’d make it in the long run.”

In the first week of March 1973, Pigpen showed up at a band rehearsal; but as McNally puts it, ‘the band didn’t want to be distracted’ and they brushed him off. Photographer Bob Seidemann, who drove him there, said that “they coldly put him down, turned him away;” so he went back home.
He was found a few days later.

Reply to this post
Reply [edit]

Poster: bkidwell Date: Apr 22, 2011 12:10pm
Forum: GratefulDead Subject: Re: Pigpen Solo - Pt II

Thank you Light into Ashes for yet another just-exactly-perfect essay that combines careful scholarship with profound understanding. Your generosity to the community by writing and sharing these with us is a shining example of the deadhead spirit.

You have also written about the "firing" of Pig and Bobby, and I believe (please correct me if you have changed your opinion) that you think the peak of the Dead was 67/68? Do you think that the pursuit of more complicated music, in terms of large scale composition and exploring polyrhythm and alternate time signatures was a mistake?

I can see an argument that something like the incredible Alligator->Caution from 11/10/67, where the musical elements of traditional blues become infused with psychedelic energy and Pigpen's musical identity can really shine at the same time the band is free to explore represents the pinnacle. A song like "New Potato Caboose" really pulls in a different direction, and the music Phil Lesh loved and regarded as a model probably had relatively little appeal for Pig. You could say Jerry was the fulcrum, and as 1968 went on, he was drawn in by a more Lesh-like focus on compositional complexity to the detriment of the r&b foundation of the band when centered on Pig.

I don't know if you'd agree with any of that or not, but all the recent discussion of Pig's big rap tunes and the evolution of Jerry's guitar style are all stewing around in my mind and this seems related.

Reply to this post
Reply [edit]

Poster: light into ashes Date: Apr 22, 2011 1:24pm
Forum: GratefulDead Subject: Re: Pigpen Solo - Pt II

I try not to talk about the "peak" of the Dead, for really, when could that be?
That said, '67/68 are my favorite years, the ones I'm most enthusiastic about. But I wouldn't say that was the period they could play the best...
And I don't think their pursuing more complicated music was a "mistake"! I love some of their more challenging pieces like New Potato, 20-minute pieces of chaos like Viola Lee, time experiments like the Eleven... Although I believe that simple things like, say, Feedback, are also valuable. If anything bugs me, it's their adoption of lots of country tunes later on which isn't so appealing for me.

Each year, they did some things better than others, and their skills changed. So rather than an 'all-improvement' scale where they got better round-the-board every year and climbed to some peak, I tend to see it more as some things being added & some things being dropped each year. The things that were dropped (like, um, Pigpen and most of their early repertoire) I like a lot; but I also like a lot of the new elements that came in over the next few years, like the mind-warping jamming style after Keith came in.

This post was modified by light into ashes on 2011-04-22 20:24:57

Reply to this post
Reply [edit]

Poster: bkidwell Date: Apr 22, 2011 1:35pm
Forum: GratefulDead Subject: Re: Pigpen Solo - Pt II

I agree with all those observations, I certainly think the amount of variety and change in the band's style was a good thing, I'm glad that every era, every year, every tour, every show - every song - has its own distinctiveness. That's the magic, right?

For me, careful study of Pig's years with the band show that musical struggles and personal tragedies were always part of the band, and the easy narrative of decline & fall is an illusion. The story of the keyboard slot in the band from 67 with Pig to 69 with TC to 71 with Keith has a weird symmetry to 89 with Brent, 91 with Bruce & Vince, 93 with Vince alone. We have learned to listen to the changes from 67-73 as a fascinating and exciting journey, and our knowledge of the story of Ron McKernan's life and death adds bittersweet context. In contrast, the later years seem to be viewed mostly through the prism of Jerry's addictions and Brent Mydland's death. Is it because it is still "too soon" and the emotional pain of those events makes it harder to hear the music?

I am thinking of this because I'll admit reading your essay did bring tears to my eyes. Even though I was familiar with most of the sources, seeing it all woven together and with many references to musical performances gave new emotional resonance to the smaller role of Pigpen during the Europe 72 tour. I may not be able to hear "Mr. Charlie" now without thinking about the physical pain pig was probably feeling.

I wonder if a similar feeling is behind some of the aversion felt by many for the later years of the dead? Probably the most common complaint is "Jerry's voice is shot" and I understand the feeling - the raspiness of Garcia's voice is like the essence of Time and Age. "Grim death gargling at you from every corner!" he said once...

Reply to this post
Reply [edit]

Poster: light into ashes Date: Apr 22, 2011 7:03pm
Forum: GratefulDead Subject: Re: Pigpen Solo - Pt II

A couple things...

One, overall I don't think the band's career was a pursuit of complexity....more often an abandonment of the goals they'd set for themselves in '68, and a pursuit of simplicity. They still set some challenges for themselves in some of Weir's tunes, but over the years I see an increasing tendency to compromise & go the easy route - to the extent where entire first sets would become "warmups" full of cowboy tunes or such. And dropping all the old material that was 'too difficult' to play doesn't speak too well of the band, either - though of course there were more issues than just song complexity. (There are many different reasons the Dead could get burned out on a song - Weir said, "we didn't play St Stephen for 20 years because Garcia didn't like the bridge!")

The thing is, more musically knowledgeable people could perhaps bring up the more complex compositions or playing styles the Dead were adopting in the '80s - maybe the Dead were still exploring the challenging fringes, in more subtle ways. Maybe the '89 band could have played circles around the '69 band, even with the same setlist. (The Dead themselves thought so at the time, and said so repeatedly.) Rarely do I see much mention of this, though - era comparisons tend to be put in terms of our tastes, rather than any analysis of the playing. Which is unavoidable, really....

The other thing is, personally I don't hear the later years through the prism of addiction & death. Those elements are probably strong for those who watched things unfold in real-time...musically, though, I hear the later years through the prism of ghastly guitar tones, awful songs, wrecked voices, grating keyboardists, tired formulas, an increasing reliance on a smothering tinker-bell synth sound, and a steady descent into tastelessness. That's what makes it hard to hear. (I guess you could say I'm not an "all-eras-are-good" listener!)

In contrast, that sound is quite accessible to other people who are able to enjoy that music more. So I kind of feel that people react to the music more on its own terms than in reference to the Dead's disastrous personal lives. I mean, Garcia was in just horrible shape in the early '80s, but the music was still going to some interesting places even if he could barely lift up his chin.

Reply to this post
Reply [edit]

Poster: bkidwell Date: Apr 23, 2011 1:35am
Forum: GratefulDead Subject: Re: Pigpen Solo - Pt II

Thanks for your thoughts. Since this is follow-up to a great essay on Pigpen, I will defer a lot of thoughts I have about later eras of the band to a future thread.

My appreciation for Pig has grown steadily over the years. When I first started listening to the band (1989), they were the first "rock band" I enjoyed. My favorite aspect of the band was the instrumental improvisations in "space" and the more elaborately composed songs like Help->Slip->Frank, and I was least interested in the traditional rock/blues style I associated with Pigpen.

My musical horizons expanded over time so I could understand the genius of what he was doing, and exposure to a wider range of his recorded material helped a lot also. Pre-1970 tapes were so prized by traders it was hard to acquire them if all you had were widely circulated shows. It's interesting to think that our ability to hear Pig has gotten better and better the more years have passed.

I meant to write more, but I got drawn into some classic Pigpen, the "Schoolgirl" from 2/3/68 and was having too much fun listening to type.

Reply to this post
Reply [edit]

Poster: deadhead53 Date: Apr 22, 2011 9:05am
Forum: GratefulDead Subject: Re: Pigpen Solo - Pt II

LiA, awesome stuff, thanks for posting. Sometimes bands and music can be heartless and cold man. Those were great posts about one of my favorite dead members even if I skip a few of his songs!

Reply to this post
Reply [edit]

Poster: Jack o' Roses Date: Apr 22, 2011 10:19am
Forum: GratefulDead Subject: Re: Pigpen Solo - Pt II

Thank you again: you're obviously a gentleman & a scholar.

Your ending anecdote of Pig with the band echos of "Vince was turned away from the Alpine Valley event, left without a ticket, when he came to the show" ['Terrapin Station - A Grateful Dead Family Reunion,' in 2002]

At least (I assume), Billy never kicked either of them in the balls....